GRAFFITI WANTED

ELEANOR OAKES
Applebaum Emerging Artist Resident at Ponyride

Reflections on her project:
GRAFFITI WANTED which ran April 11 – June 3, 2016 at 849 Henry St., Detroit

CONTROL 

As a photographic artist, I am used to having a high degree of control over every aspect of my art-making, from image capture to finished print. Graffiti Wanted was created as an extension of my images, but I could not have predicted how different it would feel to host an open platform that would surrender all creative control to the public-at-large. In many regards, I designed the project specifically to strip myself of the ability to make aesthetic decisions. I did not supply spray paint for others to use, whereby I would have dictated a specific palette, and only ‘buffed’ using paint donated through craigslist so even my erasures would have limited creative decision. This relinquishing of control had a humbling effect. After two months of cold, sweat, and blisters erasing others’ work, I became incredibly cognizant of my non-role as artist. It was not ‘my’ piece, and I was not making work for myself, but instead facilitating a platform for the art of others. 

 

COLLABORATION

The project required me to put my trust fully, and blindly, into the hands of an unknown and often anonymous public audience. I had no idea what to expect, but was immediately rewarded by a generous outpouring of participation from the first week until the last. The work ranged from large format murals by recognized graffiti artists to small tags made by young or inexperienced hands. While I might not have always ‘liked’ the work that was made on the wall, I was always appreciative for the participation. Arriving on-site each day was exciting, finding a new piece felt like a gift from the city. These contributions validated the project I wanted to create, but also spoke to a need for the platform beyond what I had imagined, a need for free and open expression without fear of legal retribution. 

 

COMMUNITY

The largest gift this project gave me was the expanded interactions with my surrounding communities. The community of Ponyride generously offered their support and connections to local artists and organizers, without which the project would not have been possible. It also provided access to a greater community of art viewers, and a more cautious community of individuals who make graffiti but are very protective of their identity. I never met most of the participants in Graffiti Wanted, but spending a lot of time at the wall, repainting it or documenting it, presented opportunities to interact with visitors and contributors alike. Viewers came by foot, car, or on bikes, and some told me they kept returning to see how things changed. Most liked the project, but some vented their frustrations with vandalism around the city. The participants were equally varied. Some were novice graffiti writers looking for a fun activity; they were friendly and talkative, taking pictures of each other and posting them to social media. But more experienced writers were often wary, they double-checked where they were allowed to paint and made sure to stay out of any camera shots. The contrast between these two groups underlined the importance of democratic opportunity for expression within our city and abroad. 

 

CONCLUSION

Although the wall was temporary, its effects continue to linger. The attention of the project allowed me to connect building owners with blank walls to artists who were seeking places to paint, I believe leading to the creation of a few permanent murals. It also opened the door to collaboration with other artists in the city, and I am continuing to work with certain individuals I met through the project. I intend to create a poster of all the graffiti made at the wall, which will be made available to those who contributed as a thank you for their participation and as a dated record of the project’s evolution. The documentation, which I am still processing, will also be used as source material for future work. Finally, this work underlined the demand for more artistic opportunity in the city of Detroit and fortified my commitment to this cause.